It resembles somewhat an un-Sanforized Cadillac Seville, but it corners flat, this boxy, sexy Glencoe Green Metallic 1981 Chrysler K-car, squealing toward the light at the end of the Shoreham parking garage tunnel like a snakebit mongoose circling back to even the score.
Heads turn on the street as the Dodge Aries Special Edition tools up Wisconsin Avenue, its digital clock ticking off the countdown to victory. The optional stereo radio is on, the air conditioner is blasting out antarctic wind, the four-cylinder engine is cranking out 25 miles per gallon in town and the hood -- the sun is at high noon, and the hood gleams its reflection.
The K-car hits the top of the hill and suddenly its passenger compartment ("room for six Americans") fills up with the national anthem, "Oh-hhh say can you SEEEEE, by the dawn's early light . . ," on a dual-speaker AM radio, in the middle of the day. Every day, as the WPGC announcer says, "as a reminder of our hostages in Iran -- until they are released."
Into yesterday's Star-Spangled Washington noon the K-car -- not an automotive breakfast cereal being marketed by Toys -R-Us, but just maybe the symbol and methaphor of a newly aroused America -- test drove itself out of an advertsing campaign into the snakebit-mongoose reality of American Autum, 1980.
Just another mid-siz car? Are you kidding? This is our Iacocca versus their ayatollah, and this press-only unveiling is the first wave in the new War Against Humiliation, a war in which every American is challenged to be in the driver's seat. The assembly line floodgates open Oct. 2, churning out 180,000 K-cars by Christmas, 600,000 by the end of the model year.
The Iacocca taking on their ayatollah is Lee A., chairman of the board of Chrysler Corp., a company which lost $1.097 billion last year, a figure so large as to seem typographically in error. But Chrysler's coporate humiliation (Why didn't they see this coming?) has also led to corporate personificaton. Lee A. Iacocca, the brooding, hard-nose denizen of Detroit, father of the Ford Mustang, television midwife of the K-car, is a new kind of Uncle Sam Who Wants You, and his message takes up where the vulgar Mickey Mouse cartoons on a pickup truck windows ("Hey Iran!") leave off:
"For too long America has been taking a beating . . . Well, Yankee ingenuity is still alive and well . . . The new Chrysler Corp. introduces the K-cars, the American way to beat the pump . . . And think about this: If everybody in the U.S. drove a K-car, we wouldn't have to import a single drop of Opec oil for gasoline . . . "
It is clearly a two-front war, as the Iacocca proved by turning up all last week -- his corporate samurai sword unsheathed -- amid the untranslated Japanese of "Shogun." We may have bought their cars, but we are not bloody well ready to learn their language. Iacoccasan, we are with you.
What's going on here is a radical surgery on the American self-image, which has always been reflected in its cars. After World War II, with good cause, the image was of a rawboned nation come of age, heavily muscled, generous in victory, and worthy of a luxury that the automobiles of the 1950s aspired to provide.
That was the decade in which each new-model year began with parades, and bunting-draped showrooms, and trading in and trading up. Fins sprouted and grew and waned season by season in madcap evolution, and every boy could name every car. Cars ushered in manhood ("Have you heard? George got his license"), and sex ('You may NOT take my daughter to the drive-in, young man") and death, too, for the dashboards were unpadded and the seatbelts unused and the tires prone to skid and the highways reckless in design.
A car then meant freedom and self-expression and status, and the idea of an import was laughable -- something brought home from somewhere else as a trophy, or a joke. There were Ford families and Chevrolet families and Chrysler Imperial families (bankers, doctors). All of the cars were muscular and robust and a little brassy, which was what Americans were.
The 1960s -- well, you remember the 1960s. Things did not get much better in the 1970s. People could still express themselves by their choice of cars, but it took a lot of radically different cars, from VW Bugs to four-barrel carb Pontiacs, because Americans suddenly seemed radically different from one another.
Perhaps we do not need so many different cars just now. If you went over to the White House a couple of weeks ago, you could see construction workers and lawyers and college kids and secretaries and mothers and children and blacks and whites, most of them yelling their heads off. They were not yelling at each other, but at a few dozen Iranian students. The hostages are not out yet, and the Russians are still in Afghanistan, and our friends in Japan and Europe are enjoying a favorable exchange rate against the dollar.
The Dodge Aries Special Edition has a base price of $6,638. We're talking a car with A/C, power brakes, power steering, $56 worth of clock and a lot of other stuff, so we're actually talking $8,618 ex tax and dealer prep.
Fifty or so (they're hard to count) automotive writers got their hands on the Aries and other K-cars yesterday at the Shoreham Hotel, out of the garage of which, like torpedo-plane pilots rising to the deck of the aircraft carrier Lexington, these pencil pilots rose toward the highways of the Capital. The world awaits their assessment, but in the meantime it can be said that, well, a K-car has a steering wheel, brakes, windows and automotive stuff like that.
At a cocktail reception Monday night, Lee Iacoca stood by the bar, feet firmly on the ground, projecting prime-time American executive leadership like a lighthouse built on an extremely nasty rock.
"We want to peck away at the Arabs," Iacocca said. "Twenty-five city and 41 highway, just peck away at them. Joe Average in this country is driving around at 14 miles per gallon. We need everybody in on this to make the OPEC figure right, and I think people are ready.
"Joe Average will beat the Arabs his own way. I discussed this with President Carter and we agreed, the American public is way ahead of both of us in this. We've been pushed around long enough. We've done a lot of research, and you can't do it with flag-waving, you can't do it with rhetoric, but if you give them an equal value, an American will buy an American car every damn time."
In Recent years it was not an every-time equation. Detroit figures that there exists in this nation a sociological car-buying wrinkle, i.e., that approximately 15 percent of the market are "hard-core import buyers." These wrinkles enjoy loud exhaust pipes and have a rakish image of themselves that probably will never be ironed out. Unfortunately, import sales in recent years reached an unexplainable 30 percent. Well, maybe not unexplainable, since imports got such good gas mileage and Chrysler was still known for New Yorkers.
"But we see a big change now, a very big change," said Frank Hoage Jr., Chrysler's director of advertising and merchandising. "The attitude now is not 'Let's blame Detroit for our ills,' but 'We know Detroit can catch up -- but when?'
"Car-buying used to be very much perceived values. Emotional. Styling. The real reason a guy bought a car was, he said to himself, 'Hey, I look great sitting in a Monte Carlo.' People wanted a long hood, because it meant luxury. And if anybody bought a compact, the first thing he did was apologize."
Hoag and his colleagues learned such things by the use of "focus panels," in which 12 persons in various cities are led by a monitor through a discussion of what they like about a certain car. Lately the "focus panels" started turning up new data.
"Well, now the guy with the smallest car is very agressive. Hey, he says, it's got front-wheel drive. You don't have to worry about the snow. Your wife won't skid in the rain. It's not that his relationship with cars has changed. What's changed is his relationship with his environment."
The environment is impending enslavement to foreign oil sheiks, and doing the dead-man's float while our pals in Europe, and particulary Japan, splash merrily by in the currents of a changing world energy economy.
"You can see how proud the auto workers are this time, proud of their product," Hoag added. "They're not going to pushed around anymore. It's really a positive attitude now. It's a big, warm feeling."
Warm? We're talking a whole country doing a slow burn. Now, out comes the K-car. It's smaller, and lighter, and it gets good gas mileage, and it looks not like a Mercedes Benz -- as Ford's Granada was alleged to when it came out -- but like a message for OPEC. It is maybe not very exciting, certainly not in the old way. But it has an image going for it.
It's the kind of car you can imagine Lee A. Iacocca driving himself. Possibly right over the ayatollah.